When Steve Cox stepped into the role of CEO with Destination NSW (DNSW) in May last year, it was difficult to imagine a more daunting set of circumstances. COVID-19 had shut borders and forced lockdowns, bringing visitor traffic to a halt. But that was only the half of it, says DNSW chair John Warn GAICD. “We already had very strong headwinds, faced with earlier drought and bushfires, so when COVID happened, it was really the trifecta, it was the perfect storm of major challenges,” says Warn. “At the start of 2020, we were in the midst of a leadership change and preparing for a new strategic direction. It was not just like riding a bike and changing the wheel at the same time, but doing it in a thunderstorm, unable to see.”
Cox left a role as managing director of Dymocks to take up the DNSW position. He and Warn had met more than a decade earlier, when both were employed as regional general managers at David Jones. Months before Cox officially started at DNSW — an agency falling under the NSW Treasury — he and Warn re-established a strong working relationship by catching up on a weekly basis to discuss current projects and future plans.
“John helped forge connections with key internal stakeholders, as well as those within government and industry, who provided ideas and feedback, and helped to shape my initial thinking,” says Cox. “When I started on day one, not only was I mentally ready, but the organisation was mentally ready, government was mentally ready and industry was ready. Each of the executive members of the organisation had been briefed and had provided a full and detailed outline of the current challenges, works in progress and things that needed to be done. I received a robust handover document, literally on day one.”
Revamping the Visitor Economy Industry Action Plan 2030 to reflect the drastically changed macro-economic and industry conditions was among the first tasks Cox tackled. He launched the #LoveNSW campaign on 1 June, which encouraged people to spend locally, and hit traditional and social media when travel restrictions were starting to ease.
“It’s a fantastic endorsement of what the team, with Steve at the helm, is capable of,” says Warn, who assumed the role of chair of DNSW almost three years ago and is also COO of Accor. “The speed and agility they showed in delivering that for the state was remarkable.”
Yet as with any project involving multiple stakeholders, it’s rare that everyone sees eye to eye. Cox had been told by NSW Treasury Secretary Michael Pratt that working within government could be a bit like being at a child’s birthday party. “He said, ‘Like the people who bend the balloon into different shapes — just when you think you’ve got it all perfectly lined up, some other part of the balloon pops up’,” says Cox. “You think you’ve done everything you could and then, at the last minute, somebody else in government says, ‘Oh, what about this?’ and ‘What about that?’ After launching that campaign, I actually called Mike and said, ‘I’ve just had my first children’s party balloon experience’.”
The numbers game
33 million travellers visited NSW in the year ending June 2020 — three million international visitors and more than 30 million domestic visitors
–22% compared to the 42.7 million tourists of 2018–19
$25.9b combined visitors to NSW total spend in 2019–20
–23.3% Total spending down on $33.8b spent in previous year
Source: Destination NSW
Balancing the needs of diverse stakeholders — from individuals at senior levels of government through to small business owners who form the backbone of the visitor economy — is inherently challenging. Yet moving beyond tangibles such as promotional campaigns and strategy documents, both Cox and Warn emphasise that “breaking down silos” to build a more consultative and collaborative culture within DNSW and, critically, across industry and government, has been a bigger-picture goal.
“Often we’re saying no to people who come to us for partnerships, investment or endorsement, but how you say no to people defines your relationship,” says Warn. “Ultimately, we wanted to reset the brand and the mindset of all our stakeholders, so a lot of our focus is around that relationship and stakeholder management. We’re doing a terrific job, but there’s still a lot to do.”
Warn says the shared vision he and Cox crafted over those early catch-ups provided a road map through the initial few weeks of the pandemic. During tumultuous times, a temptation for board directors is to “get more involved”, says Warn, but he adheres to a policy of “noses in and fingers out”. “There’s a really important line that boards need to draw around how much they get involved in day-to-day management and how much they can slow executive teams and organisations down,” he explains.
Warn describes his role as chair as “challenging” in that he needs to keep board members fully informed while providing the new CEO with breathing room. “As a board, we do disagree at times, but it’s a healthy debate,” he says. “Seeking input from all is key, but because there’s a clear vision and mutual respect, we’re able to make the best decisions and move on.”
Difficult conversations are most productive in an open, transparent environment, adds Cox. “It’s about having the trust that you can say what you need to say, without being worried about, ‘Am I going to be here tomorrow?’” He also notes that he sees opportunities to drive further organisational change off the back of COVID-19. “We don’t want to waste a crisis — there is the potential to come out of this stronger than when we came into it.”
In line with the principle of inclusiveness being modelled across the organisation, both Warn and Cox are keen to ramp up efforts to promote NSW’s attractions beyond Sydney — and Sydney’s attractions beyond the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. To that end, Cox spends at least two days of every month in the regions. “It’s just like when you’re running retail businesses, you walk the store and straight away you can tell how the organisation is going by talking to the customers and being directly connected on the ground.”
Warn, who was raised in the small town of Crookwell in the NSW Southern Tablelands, says regional areas of the state are close to his heart. “Having connection to country NSW keeps me anchored there,” he says.
“One significant change we’ve made in my time is that we hold about every third board meeting in regional NSW. That’s been a little tricky through COVID-19, but it’s something that is very symbolic. We used to have 12 meetings a year in The Rocks in Sydney, but now we’re having meetings in Dubbo, Kingscliff, Albury and so on. By doing this, our stakeholders really believe we’re representing all of NSW, not just Sydney. It’s a really important point for all of us at DNSW because this is a legacy opportunity. We have to do something different for the state.”